Chelsea Hunter’s 19-year-old sister, Sierra, disappeared in Oklahoma in April. Sierra Hunter is one face of an epidemic of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women across the U.S.
Native American women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists homicide as the third leading cause of death for Native American women aged 10-24.
Nicole Wagon of Wyoming lost two daughters — one was killed in 2019, and another was found dead in 2020.
Denae Shanidiin of Utah has devoted herself to raising awareness of the issue since her aunt Priscilla was killed more than three decades ago. That case is still unsolved.
“We all have relatives who have gone missing or who have been murdered,” Shanidiin said. “Currently, there are thousands of unsolved cases. And the response from the FBI, law enforcement is often they don’t have the resources to solve these cases.”
Then a case like Gabby Petito’s disappearance and homicide captures the nation’s attention.
“We’re seeing this extraordinary display of resources and attention on this one girl,” Shanidiin said. “And we have to fight for that kind of attention in that recognition of our pain every single day. And it’s so exhausting.”
While expressing sympathy for Petito, some have detected what they see as a racial double standard, complaining that the media and online sleuths are heavily invested in this case because she is young and white.
Also, a same-sex couple who lived in a van were reported missing and later found shot to death at a campsite near Moab, not long after Petito and her boyfriend were stopped by police there. The deaths of Kylen Schulte and Crystal Turner generated some media coverage but nothing like the Petito case.
According to NPR, in Wyoming alone, Indigenous people have been the victims in 21% of homicides, even though they make up 3% of the population. In the same state, at least 710 Native Americans were reported missing between 2011 and late 2020, the Associated Press reports.
The coverage the cases get tends to focus on the victims, with “negative character framing,” according to Cara Chambers, chair of the state task force that released the report on Indigenous homicides.
Statistics show Indigenous women go missing at 10 times the national average, and the vast majority of disappearances and murders are never solved.
“There are a lot of women of color, and especially immigrants, this happens to all the time, and we never hear about it,” Alex Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Miami, told the AP.
According to research, distrust of law enforcement means some cases aren’t reported promptly. Stereotypes and prejudice can also lead to a delayed or limited investigation. And jurisdictional conflicts mean white suspects often aren’t held accountable for crimes on tribal lands.
However, thanks to tireless efforts by victims’ families — through demonstrations and demands for change — many states are enacting legislation to address the issue and fund investigations. Families are hoping the measures can solve or at least mitigate the ongoing wave of murders and disappearances.
There is support at the federal level, as well. Deb Haaland, who made history as the first Native American to be appointed as secretary of the interior by President Joe Biden, has launched a Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services (BIA-OJS) to pursue justice for missing or murdered American Indians and Alaska natives.